Mink Machine

The spell of sports

The largest sports event of 2010 is without any doubt the Soccer World Championship in South Africa. Events like these make the world grind to a stop when it’s getting close to kickoff, as people are spellbound at the arena, at a pub or in the sofa. The audience stare at 22 men running around on a field of grass, chasing a round object made from the skin of an animal.

But why are we putting so much time and energy into spectator sports? And what makes someone fanatic enough to attack the other team’s fans? Let’s pretend we’re from outer space, trying to understand this thing about sports.

Some of the answers may be found in the past. For millions of years, our ancestors had to hunt for food, making their lives totally dependent on their hunting skills and ability to work together as a team. Fast forward to present day. These two characteristics are still there inside our bodies, but they are no longer needed in their original form. We can find kebab on the street corner, so there is no need for a carefully planned hunting mission.

These instincts born from natural selection don’t disappear over night (to put it mildly), so we have to channel them in other ways. Team sports provide a fun and healthy challenge which is enjoyed by most people. It gives good exercise and training in different kinds of cooperation and coordination.

The compulsion to watch other people engage in physical team activities is nothing new. Even the Romans, Egyptians and several other cultures played ball. Some successful athletes have a salary that exceeds the GDP of a small nation. So obviously this is big business.

So far, so good. But then things get a little bit out of hand.

Several years ago, I was spectator at a match of Muay Thai (a martial art similar to kickboxing) at Ratchadamnoen Stadium in Bangkok. With a past in martial arts myself, I was interested to see this particular sport on the “real site”. It turned out that the audience was far more interesting than the boxers. As the fight progressed, they shouted loudly at the bookmakers who had a hard time keeping up with the onslaught of betting. A small orchestra of four increased the pace by beating like crazy on their drums. As the boxers started to bleed from their injuries, the audience started to resemble a pack of wolves shouting eagerly for more blood. When one got the upper hand, the crowd almost stormed the stage in their wild screams for a finishing blow.

Muay Thai in Bangkok Before the storm. A Muay Thai fighter at Ratchadamnoen Stadium, Bangkok.

What is it that makes these people scream for blood? They trigger each other a great deal, since I doubt they would display the same attitude in a crowd of three instead of three hundred. But still.

For a more peaceful example closer to home, visit a ice hockey game. The biggest indoor arena in Gothenburg, Scandinavium, sells on average 11 000 tickets to any game with the local team Frölunda Indians. Some games tend to get rough since ice hockey is a very physical sport, and a lot of people cheer when the players start to beat each other with their fists.

Ice hockey in Scandinavium Audience in Scandinavium hockey arena.

Again, it’s a group triggering effect to some extent. But I’ve seen the same behaviour in small spectator groups as well.

Another interesting factor is the “we” against “them”. Competitive sports are acting as a friendly conflict, but to some they are as important as real war. In 1969 a war was fought between El Salvador and Honduras which was triggered by soccer matches between the countries (for more on this, read the interesting book “The Soccer War” by Ryszard Kapuscinski).

Soccer in Ullevi Not even heavy rain can stop the audience from watching the derby IFK-GAIS at Ullevi.

Back to the World Cup. Today there was a match between arch rivals Germany and England. The Swedish TV speaker said that these countries had met twice before, both ending with victory for the English. He was referring to 1918 and 1945. Even for a sports journalist, I find comparing a soccer game to a World War quite disgusting.

Also, how do you decide which team to root for? Most people cheer for their home town team by default, but why? They are not likely to know any of the players personally. It gets even more blurry when you cheer for foreign teams. And I’m not in any way better myself, since I cheered for one of the teams in today’s soccer match mentioned above, without any real reason for doing so.

I remember reading somewhere that the most human trait is the instinct of competition. I guess it makes sense in a Darwinian approach to life. But I think we should strive to improve ourselves, instead of trying to defeat others.


  • avatar
    20 Jul, 2010

    Actually, the Jabulani (the name of the football model used in the 2010 FIFA World Cup) is made from ethylene-vinyl acetate and thermoplastic polyurethanes. No dead animals AFAIK. :)

  • avatar
    20 Jul, 2010

    No dead animal anymore? Then I will never watch soccer again. :)

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